ISHN Guest BlogPosted on January 17, 2013 on

Virtually all catastrophic events in man-made systems are related to technical failures made possible by organizational failures.

This explains why catastrophic events continue to occur despite widespread implementation of sophisticated technical and management systems. Deepwater Horizon and Texas City disasters are examples of events caused by weak organizational safety—the context within which technical and management systems function.  

Events like these transcend the industries. Managers need to recognize organizational safety as a whole, understand how it must be managed, and identify where it tends to break down.

In thinking about organizational safety, managers need to consider seven primary questions:

1.Do people throughout the organization understand the difference between personal safety and prevention of catastrophic events? If not, they may mistake good performance in personal safety with good control of the potential for catastrophic events.

2. Do we have the right technical and management systems in place and do they get implemented as intended (and how are they monitored)? Ultimately what happens day-to-day is more important than the design intent of these systems.

3. Does our culture support consistent and rigorous use of safety technical and management systems? Culture determines the way things are really done in the organization, and if the culture does not support key systems, the systems are bound to break down.

4. Do our leaders act in ways that promote identification of exposure and reduction of risk? There are key leadership behaviors that can help assure effective hazard recognition, evaluation, and control. If leaders are not aware of these and actively practicing them, technical and management systems are likely to be compromised.

5. Do our “consequence management” systems support the activities critical to prevention of catastrophic events? The way performance is assessed, promotions awarded, and recognition and rewards distributed are all examples of how key systems influence perceptions of what is truly important to succeed in an organization.

6. Do we have the right skills available for supporting all aspects of safety? Do we assign roles and responsibilities in a way that assures clarity, alignment, coordination, and communication? Prevention of catastrophic events is generally a multifunctional effort. This requires careful consideration of how the various participants interact and collaborate.

7. Are the metrics in place to detect changes in exposure and assure focus on key processes and procedures? If the only metrics in use for safety are those addressing personal safety, the organization will be unable to detect trends in catastrophic event potential.

Organizations must move beyond the traditional technical and management systems to prevent catastrophic events. Seeking the answers to the questions above and considering many questions like them helps change the behaviors and thinking necessary to lead successful safety efforts.